GM confusion

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We’re living in what many are calling the “information age.” Yet, confusion reigns over many important issues, and our easy access to information — and misinformation — helps fuel that confusion.

Biotechnology is a classic example of divergent opinions, information and propaganda that produce confusion among consumers.

A new study from United Kingdom-based PG Economics, Ltd., for instance, says, “Crop biotechnology has consistently provided important economic and production gains, improved incomes and reduced risk.”

The authors note that in the 16th year of widespread adoption, “crop biotechnology has delivered an unparalleled level of farm income benefit to the farmers, as well as providing considerable environmental benefits to both farmers and citizens of countries where the technology is used.”

Despite such a glowing endorsement of biotechnology and its benefits to agriculture and food production, there’s a growing sentiment in the United States and elsewhere to curb the use of such technology.

Last month, federal legislation was proposed that would require food manufacturers to clearly label any product containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) — or risk having that product classified “misbranded” by the Food and Drug Administration.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced the “Genetically Engineered Food Right-To-Know Act” to the Senate and House of Representatives. The bill has nine cosponsors in the Senate and 22 cosponsors in the House.

“Americans have the right to know what is in the food they eat so they can make the best choices for their families,” Boxer said. “This legislation is supported by a broad coalition of consumer groups, businesses, farmers, fishermen and parents who all agree that consumers deserve more — not less — information about the food they buy.”

Although there is no indication in the bill that GMO foods are unsafe, the implications are clear that many see them as harmful — either to the environment, to humans, or both. Such an implication plays on emotion and defies scientific research, which the Food and Drug Administration relied on when it approved GM crops.

Clearly, the federal government is sending mixed signals to consumers. On one hand, the FDA has approved the use of GM crops and the food produced with them. On the other, Congress is ready to consider mandatory GM-labeling legislation that would be expensive to implement and likely only provide further confusion to consumers.

Another report issued this spring highlights consumer skepticism, especially of “greenwashing.” That’s the term many are using to describe the “concept that gives companies a chance to cash in on consumers who want to help the planet but are confused by all the eco-friendly jargon,” according to Mike de Vere, president of the Harris Poll, the company that released the study. In March, a Harris Poll of 2,276 adults found almost 60 percent of respondents believe labeling food or other products as organic is just an excuse to charge more.

According to the Harris Poll, eight in 10 Americans (80 percent) say they will seek out green products, but only three in 10 (30 percent) are willing to pay extra for them. Americans’ preference for environmentally friendly products is often distorted by incorrect perceptions, and those misperceptions are often evident in food products. For instance, recent research shows that organic produce and meat typically aren’t any better for you than conventional varieties when it comes to vitamin and nutrient content, but more than half of Americans (51 percent) believe that organic foods are healthier than non-organic.

The Harris Poll was conducted in America, a wealthy nation with consumers who can afford to pay extra for organic foods or thumb their noses at foods produced with GM technology. Nations in the developing world would seem to view such technology differently, according to the PG Economics report.

“Where farmers have been given the choice of growing GM crops, adoption levels have typically been rapid. Why? The economic benefits farmers realize are clear and amounted to an average of over $130/hectare in 2011” said Graham Brookes, director of PG Economics, co-author of the report. “The majority of these benefits continue to increasingly go to farmers in developing countries. The environment is also benefiting as farmers increasingly adopt conservation tillage practices, build their weed-management practices around more benign herbicides and replace insecticide use with insect-resistant GM crops. The reduction in pesticide spraying and the switch to no-till cropping systems is continuing to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture.”

Such GM benefits to farmers, consumers and the environment are evident in America, too. Emotion and misinformation, however, fuel our confusing reaction to advancements in technology that are critical to agriculture sustainability and food security.


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